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The cinematography of The Passion of The Christ


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#1 Marty McCool

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Posted 01 July 2009 - 10:52 AM

With six months to go to the end of the decade, many film writers are compiling best of lists. One of the best achievements in cinematography in this decade is the painterly work of Caleb Deschael on Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. The misty blue haze in the opening Gethsemane scene was mermerising to look at and provided a sharp contrast to the warm golden glow of The Last Supper scenes. Mel Gibson commissioned his cinematographer to infuse virtually every frame with the moody, morbid look of a Caravaggio painting and this was achieved with distinction.
I published a book called 'The power of The Passion of The Christ' in 2007 and my artist drew an image for the book (see image) and I wanted the same sort of feel. But Caleb Deschael's work was amazing on this film.

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#2 Chris Keth

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Posted 01 July 2009 - 09:55 PM

With six months to go to the end of the decade, many film writers are compiling best of lists. One of the best achievements in cinematography in this decade is the painterly work of Caleb Deschael on Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ. The misty blue haze in the opening Gethsemane scene was mermerising to look at and provided a sharp contrast to the warm golden glow of The Last Supper scenes. Mel Gibson commissioned his cinematographer to infuse virtually every frame with the moody, morbid look of a Caravaggio painting and this was achieved with distinction.
I published a book called 'The power of The Passion of The Christ' in 2007 and my artist drew an image for the book (see image) and I wanted the same sort of feel. But Caleb Deschael's work was amazing on this film.


...there's still over a year of the decade to go. :blink:

I thought the film was nothing special. It was heavy handed and lacked subtlety. I felt no connection to any characters. The images were unfortunately, exactly what I expected to see in a movie about Jesus. I would have preferred a less "worshipping" approach to the visuals that would make the characters more accessible as people.
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#3 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 02 July 2009 - 04:21 AM

...there's still over a year of the decade to go. :blink:

This kinda reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry points out to Newman that his planned millenium bash is actually a year early... "thus making it quite lame." :)

I didn't think the cinematography in "Passion" was that amazing either (and I'm a big Caleb Deschanel fan). I only saw the film once when it came out though. The color scheme of contrasting blue moonlight/warm fire light felt a bit one dimensional and schematic to me. I felt it was logically motivated, but not emotionally motivated - at least, I didn't get any emotion from it and so to me it was very noticeable in a distracting "oh wow, it's very blue now because it must be moonlight" kind of way.

I think this was the case with the whole film in general. It all somehow felt lacking in depth to me - characterization, story structure, shot selection, framing and lens choice, use of color and contrast. I understand that there are many fundamentalist audience members who believe that this is exactly how it should be, that Jesus Christ's story should not be open to interpretation but instead should follow the Bible story in exact detail without embellishment. But I think this idea is contrary to the nature of good cinema, which at its best unconsciously reflects the various filmmakers' view of life through their choices. Thus, such a film has contained within it the sum of the life experiences of many different people which gives the film balance, ambiguity, and complexity. I felt that in this film, many key artistic contributors rigorously avoided making choices that would reflect their own points of view, and the film was poorer for it.

I didn't feel surprised by any of the cinematographic choices made - like Chris, the images were exactly what I would have expected to see, knowing that Gibson and Deschanel were trying for a "historically correct" period feeling. I think they just went too far in the direction of photographic naturalism, and that there was a lack of interpretation in lens selection/framing/contrast/color/movement/etc. that made the cinematography skillful but boring to me.
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#4 Marty McCool

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Posted 02 July 2009 - 07:54 AM

This kinda reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry points out to Newman that his planned millenium bash is actually a year early... "thus making it quite lame." :)

I didn't think the cinematography in "Passion" was that amazing either (and I'm a big Caleb Deschanel fan). I only saw the film once when it came out though. The color scheme of contrasting blue moonlight/warm fire light felt a bit one dimensional and schematic to me. I felt it was logically motivated, but not emotionally motivated - at least, I didn't get any emotion from it and so to me it was very noticeable in a distracting "oh wow, it's very blue now because it must be moonlight" kind of way.

I think this was the case with the whole film in general. It all somehow felt lacking in depth to me - characterization, story structure, shot selection, framing and lens choice, use of color and contrast. I understand that there are many fundamentalist audience members who believe that this is exactly how it should be, that Jesus Christ's story should not be open to interpretation but instead should follow the Bible story in exact detail without embellishment. But I think this idea is contrary to the nature of good cinema, which at its best unconsciously reflects the various filmmakers' view of life through their choices. Thus, such a film has contained within it the sum of the life experiences of many different people which gives the film balance, ambiguity, and complexity. I felt that in this film, many key artistic contributors rigorously avoided making choices that would reflect their own points of view, and the film was poorer for it.

I didn't feel surprised by any of the cinematographic choices made - like Chris, the images were exactly what I would have expected to see, knowing that Gibson and Deschanel were trying for a "historically correct" period feeling. I think they just went too far in the direction of photographic naturalism, and that there was a lack of interpretation in lens selection/framing/contrast/color/movement/etc. that made the cinematography skillful but boring to me.

While the artistic choices made in terms of cinematography were not that adventurous, for what this film intended - to deliver a gritty, moody version of Palestine - I found the film very effective. It wasn't always pretty to look at, yet it was very hard to look away.
I can't agree that there was a lack of depth or engagement with the characters. I thought what Jim Caviezel did with his eyes was astonishing and he really pulled me in to the character he was playing. For me he captured through his eyes alone the complexity of Christ. There was an element of mystery about the way they lit Jim Caviezel in certain scenes to cast him with this aura of divinity and there were some closely regarded secrets in that regard.
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 July 2009 - 09:42 AM

I understand that there are many fundamentalist audience members who believe that this is exactly how it should be, that Jesus Christ's story should not be open to interpretation but instead should follow the Bible story in exact detail without embellishment.


Have you read the Gospels? That movie had a LOT of embellishment!

http://en.wikipedia....n_of_the_Christ

Catholic devotional writings
Screenwriters Mel Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald said that they read many accounts of Christ's passion for inspiration, including the devotional writings of Catholic mystics. A principal source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ[8] the meditations of the stigmatic, German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), as told to the poet Clemens Brentano. Among the many elements taken from the Dolorous Passion are scenes such as the suspension of Jesus from a bridge after his arrest by the Temple guards, the torment of Judas by demons after he had handed over Jesus the Jews, the wiping up of the blood of Jesus after his scourging, and the dislocation of Jesus’ shoulder so that his palm would reach the hole for the nail.[8] A second source mentioned was The Mystical City of God by Maria de Agreda (1602–1665), a 17th century Spanish nun.


I liked the photography, the anamorphic painterly look.

As for movies on the life of Jesus, I prefer Zeferelli's mini-series and Watkin's photography:
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#6 Marty McCool

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Posted 03 July 2009 - 10:28 AM

Have you read the Gospels? That movie had a LOT of embellishment!

http://en.wikipedia....n_of_the_Christ


I liked the photography, the anamorphic painterly look.

As for movies on the life of Jesus, I prefer Zeferelli's mini-series and Watkin's photography:
Posted Image

Nice photograph above.
There is one scene in The Passion of The Christ that stands out both in terms of cinematography and theologically. It's the second hilltop flashback scene where Jesus is speaking to a large crowd on a hilltop and telling them that he will lay his life down willingly. The way the scene is shot, with the sun burst radiating all around the silhouetted figure of Christ gives the scene cosmic power and bringing out the idea of him as the Son of God, the saviour who holds the fate of the world in his hands. The way Jim Caviezel raises his hand into the sun before it cuts back to Calvary is incredibly powerful for me. It's one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in cinema.

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#7 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 03 July 2009 - 01:02 PM

Have you read the Gospels? That movie had a LOT of embellishment!

Nope, I'm a heathen. There's my problem, I guess... I actually went to the theater with a friend who went to Catholic school so he could tell me what was embellished, but all we could talk about afterward was how awful and depressing the experience was. He was so offended that he almost walked out at one point, while I just found it boring and gruesome. But again, I've only seen the film once years ago so compared to someone who's seen it many times, I'm sure I've missed a lot of details.
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#8 K Borowski

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Posted 03 July 2009 - 02:18 PM

The movie was basically Jesus Christ getting the crap beat out of him for two hours. That's an exact quote from a Catholic school teacher. She said that, Biologically, a human being couldn't survive that level of damage without losing consciousness.

I talked to a priest who said that Jesus also got nine times as many lashings in the movie as he did according to the Bible. The "Cat of 9 Tails" whip used delivered nine lashes at once, yet they were still counting each one as one instead of counting by nines.

I met the guy that played Jesus once and he was a jerk. Mel Gibson is similarly a hypocrite.

Coming from a Catholic background myself, there is way too much emphasis placed on Jesus's suffering. The reason he is remembered is for what he had to say.


The movie had terrible color shifts, bad DI (EFilm IIRC?) and was grainy and noisy. I don't know why a movie basically devoid of CGI needed a DI, but then again, it appears Gibson is on the digital bandwagon now in a big way, so he probably did it to make himself feel good.

No offence to the cinematographer. He did what he could with a poorly-thought-out subject matter.

I was shocked myself that it was nothign but Jesus Christ getting beaten with the exception of maybe 10 minutes of footage before that event. Someone said, sarcastically to me "Well, it is called the Passion of the Christ, Karl" No sh*& but talk about over-doing it. Sometimes I am ashamed to be associated with some of the people in this religion and this is one of them. Some marketing master made it out that the liberal media was trying to sensor this fiml adn the Catholic Church bought it and practically made everyone go see it in Catholic school. Ridiculous. Much better film to see would've been "The Last Temptation of Christ." At least that one has some complexity and depth to it, probably why the Catholic church hated it.
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#9 Marty McCool

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 11:13 AM

The movie was basically Jesus Christ getting the crap beat out of him for two hours. That's an exact quote from a Catholic school teacher. She said that, Biologically, a human being couldn't survive that level of damage without losing consciousness.

I talked to a priest who said that Jesus also got nine times as many lashings in the movie as he did according to the Bible. The "Cat of 9 Tails" whip used delivered nine lashes at once, yet they were still counting each one as one instead of counting by nines.

I met the guy that played Jesus once and he was a jerk. Mel Gibson is similarly a hypocrite.

Coming from a Catholic background myself, there is way too much emphasis placed on Jesus's suffering. The reason he is remembered is for what he had to say.

The movie had terrible color shifts, bad DI (EFilm IIRC?) and was grainy and noisy. I don't know why a movie basically devoid of CGI needed a DI, but then again, it appears Gibson is on the digital bandwagon now in a big way, so he probably did it to make himself feel good.

No offence to the cinematographer. He did what he could with a poorly-thought-out subject matter.

I was shocked myself that it was nothign but Jesus Christ getting beaten with the exception of maybe 10 minutes of footage before that event. Someone said, sarcastically to me "Well, it is called the Passion of the Christ, Karl" No sh*& but talk about over-doing it. Sometimes I am ashamed to be associated with some of the people in this religion and this is one of them. Some marketing master made it out that the liberal media was trying to sensor this fiml adn the Catholic Church bought it and practically made everyone go see it in Catholic school. Ridiculous. Much better film to see would've been "The Last Temptation of Christ." At least that one has some complexity and depth to it, probably why the Catholic church hated it.

I think that quote from the so-called teacher is a very shallow and misguided assessment of a film that has some remarkable moments of depth and texture, such as the scenes between Jesus and Simon of Cyrene where a tremendous amount is conveyed in the wordless exchanges between them. Such an opinion also completely unvalues the flashback scenes which were beautifully filmed and rich in meaning and inspiration. The aforementioned scene on the hilltop with the sun burst all around Jesus is an astonishing demonstation of the power of Christ through the power of cinema. The Sermon on the Mount flashback is incredibly moving and the way it's intercut with the way of the cross scenes, juxtaposing beauty and brutallity, is very good editing.
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 12:04 PM

I'm sorry, but that movie is not a good introduction to the teachings of Christ -- the overall impression is just one of relentless violence, "torture porn" as some people describe certain horror films today. It detracts from what should be the main impression and message. My first reaction after seeing the movie was "Yuck." And I'm a Christian, I like movies about Christ. This one, though, was ruined by Gibson's preoccupation with seeing people get tortured on camera.

There are lots of good parts but the ridiculous levels of gore and violence overshadow them.

The tale of the Passion should really emphasize Christ's suffering as a human being, but twenty minutes into the movie, he's already suffered so much torture that he comes off as super-human after that point.

There is one single shot in "Jesus of Nazareth", a shot of Jesus emerging from a blinding white doorway in silhouette, after he has been whipped by the Romans and given the thorny crown, slowly walking and stumbling towards the camera into a close-up, that sums up the themes of the Gospel far more effectively than the entire running time of "The Passion".

Most filmmakers know that you don't have to show lots of onscreen violence to create an emotional reaction from the audience. "The Passion" becomes the equivalent of those gruesome driving training movies like "Red Asphalt". Yuck.

But there are some good bits in there if you fast-forward through 80% of the movie.
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#11 K Borowski

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 01:26 PM

I think that quote from the so-called teacher is a very shallow and misguided assessment of a film that has some remarkable moments of depth and texture, such as the scenes between Jesus and Simon of Cyrene where a tremendous amount is conveyed in the wordless exchanges between them. Such an opinion also completely unvalues the flashback scenes which were beautifully filmed and rich in meaning and inspiration. The aforementioned scene on the hilltop with the sun burst all around Jesus is an astonishing demonstation of the power of Christ through the power of cinema. The Sermon on the Mount flashback is incredibly moving and the way it's intercut with the way of the cross scenes, juxtaposing beauty and brutallity, is very good editing.


This wasn't a "so-called teacher", this was a teacher that devoted 20 years to teaching at a Catholic High School. My feelings were the same.

Why are the most important teachings of Christ relegated to flashbacks in this film?

I guess arguing this is a losing battle though, because anything I say from here on out to criticize the film will be interpretted as "anti-Christian", which I am not trying to be. When I criticize any current church teachings, even ones that were different at one time, I run into the same brick wall, so I am not going to bang my head against it here anymore.


I'm in pretty-much total agreement with David here. Unfortunately, watching it in the theatre, I didn't have the luxury of requesting a "fast-forward." How much of a bribe do you think that would take these days, because it might have been expensive but it would have been worth it? Have you seen the cable commercial where the guy runs up to the projectionist and says "Dude, you have *got* to rewind that chase scene!" and the projectionist, with one hand on the film feeding into the projector, gives him a look like "What planet are you from?" :P
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#12 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 01:41 PM

I grew up Mormon and was a missionary in an earlier life, so I guess I know something of Christ's life. The Passion is just Mel Gibson at his gruesome worst. It's a shame, because Deschanel's work is immaculate. I avoided seeing the film for years because I knew it was mostly a man getting tortured, so who wants to see that? When I finally saw it, it was pretty much what I expected. All violence, very little story, but with actors who really brought some great performances to the piece, despite its problems.

I think had they taken the same cast, and actually created a film that included more of Christ's life and teachings, it would have been a much better film with more reason for non-religious folk to actually care more deeply about the man receiving the punishment.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" I recall was pretty good, saw it when I was a teenager though.
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#13 Marty McCool

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 02:02 PM

I grew up Mormon and was a missionary in an earlier life, so I guess I know something of Christ's life. The Passion is just Mel Gibson at his gruesome worst. It's a shame, because Deschanel's work is immaculate. I avoided seeing the film for years because I knew it was mostly a man getting tortured, so who wants to see that? When I finally saw it, it was pretty much what I expected. All violence, very little story, but with actors who really brought some great performances to the piece, despite its problems.

I think had they taken the same cast, and actually created a film that included more of Christ's life and teachings, it would have been a much better film with more reason for non-religious folk to actually care more deeply about the man receiving the punishment.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" I recall was pretty good, saw it when I was a teenager though.

People seem to forget: this film was not called 'The life of The Christ' it was called The Passion of The Christ. The fact is people had it far too easy in terms of what they understood about the cross and Christ's suffering and Mel Gibson's film set out to do justice of the magnitude of the sacrifice made by Jesus. The cross is the defining event for believers and a defining event in human history, yet people recoil from it. "How horrible" they say about The Passion but this is precisely how Jesus was put to death. The night before in Gethsemane, Jesus foresaw every detail of his passion and if he had opted out, in the same way people opt out of watching this film, salvation would have been lost!
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#14 John Holland

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 03:16 PM

Awful film !!!, think now we should ask everyone who thinks how films should be lit . Must watch every film that David Watkin shot !!!! Yes i know boring old fart crit . will be said again !!! but well ,still the best ! most anyway !!
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#15 K Borowski

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Posted 04 July 2009 - 04:52 PM

The night before in Gethsemane, Jesus foresaw every detail of his passion and if he had opted out, in the same way people opt out of watching this film, salvation would have been lost!


Give it 20 years, Marty, and people will be saying that those who haven't seen this film cannot get into heaven :unsure:


So are you now dropping the guise of the Cinematography discussion?

The two, religion and cinematography, have nothing to do with one another, unless cinematography *is* your religion.


I am a big fan of films that have great stories that are terribly shot, and vice versa. "Indecent Proposal" was almost too well shot. How can you connect the one with the other?

This film has one of the worst D.I.s I have ever seen.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" or "The Ten Commandments" or best yet "Ben Hurr" (1959 vers.) are far more profound films. The important story points in "Passion" were far too brief, few and far between. The cinematography was mediocre in the "80%" (I'd say it's more like 90-95% in my recollection from five years ago), that made up the bulk of the movie. The flashbacks were the only parts of this film that were worthy of deeper cinematic evaluation.

As a story goes, what story? It was practically non-existent. I don't even remember if you see him rising from the dead at the end of the movie, but if he did, it was so brief and unremarkable that I don't even remember that part.


I don't consider Christ's crucifixion to be the defining moment in his life. I consider it a tragedy of human beings being afraid of change, afraid of going against the status quo and doctrine. How ironic that Christianity has taken up the very same role, in my opinion, that the Pharisees took up in the time of Christ.

If that means I am a heretic and I am going to hell, so be it. But I am certain that if Jesus didn't have anything important to say, we wouldn't even know about his being crucified. A lot of people died that way back then, you know.
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#16 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 02:32 AM

Awful film !!!, think now we should ask everyone who thinks how films should be lit . Must watch every film that David Watkin shot !!!! Yes i know boring old fart crit . will be said again !!! but well ,still the best ! most anyway !!

John, just wanted to say I always enjoy your posts! I wish there was a filter I could run my posts thru to make them come out like this. :P
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#17 Andy_Alderslade

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 06:14 AM

Must watch every film that David Watkin shot !!!! Yes i know boring old fart crit . will be said again !!! but well ,still the best ! most anyway !!


I remember first seeing Return to Oz, my five-year-old self watched the scene where the witch took her head off, I went pale and stood in the corner silently....
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#18 Tim Partridge

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Posted 05 July 2009 - 07:59 AM

Awful film !!!, think now we should ask everyone who thinks how films should be lit . Must watch every film that David Watkin shot !!!! Yes i know boring old fart crit . will be said again !!! but well ,still the best ! most anyway !!


Like David Bowie, I think, aside from the kiddy productions, Watkin's project choices became, um, questionable, as the 1980s progressed. Loved both Bowie and Watkin's more experimental, 60s/70s work though. :D

Am I still the only person on Earth who has seen Sky Bandits/Gunbus? :huh:
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#19 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 06 July 2009 - 05:20 PM

I talked to a priest who said that Jesus also got nine times as many lashings in the movie as he did according to the Bible. The "Cat of 9 Tails" whip used delivered nine lashes at once, yet they were still counting each one as one instead of counting by nines.



I don't know why a movie basically devoid of CGI needed a DI, but then again, it appears Gibson is on the digital bandwagon now in a big way, so he probably did it to make himself feel good.


There is lots of subtle CGI in the movie. Caviezel actually has blue eyes. The color was digitally changed. Maybe contact lenses would have been noticeable in the close ups. Go figure.
Which makes Mr.McCool's "For me he captured through his eyes alone the complexity of Christ" interesting. Lashing wounds were digitally covered & then uncovered as they were hit by CGI whips.
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#20 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 06 July 2009 - 05:28 PM

Am I still the only person on Earth who has seen Sky Bandits/Gunbus? :huh:


I'll own up, I saw it.
All I remember of it is some cartoony looking front projection scenes with rotating bi-planes
& and wondering why did Watkin pick this project?
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